reading the signs

The Battle Cry of the ‘Schoolmarm’

Warren. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP/Shutterstock

The end of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign fills me with a special, stinging grief, a grief born of more than the loss of my preferred candidate, more than my recognition of the obvious misogyny that blocked her rise. No, my sorrow — and that of countless of my women colleagues — feels acutely personal, for, like Warren, I am a schoolmarm.

I didn’t realize it for years. I thought I knew all the characteristics of that curious species, and none applied to me: I thought a schoolmarm lived on a prairie and worked in a one-room schoolhouse. That she hid her sad, spare figure beneath floor-length skirts and high-necked blouses. She taught “rithmetic” to students who used slates or inkwells. She was unmarried, sexless, prim and proper, severe and scolding — and oh, yes, she EXISTED IN THE 19TH CENTURY. No wonder I did not understand that I was a schoolmarm.

But thanks to Elizabeth Warren, I’ve learned that we schoolmarms transcend time and space. Any woman who “professes” — as Warren did as both a Harvard Law professor and a candidate — risks falling into that category, morphing instantly from erudite expert to spinsterish shrew. No need here to rehash just how often Warren was called a schoolmarm — it has long been the go-to term, the magic word that turned all her strengths to weaknesses. Even those who support Warren’s politics have used it: Back in 2012, a Democratic strategist faulted Warren, then running for Senate, for being “hectoring [and] schoolmarmish.”

Self-styled intellectuals use it — like George Will. Though a conservative, Will is a man of letters, someone who should be able to appreciate Warren’s intellect. But no: Warren’s “persona is that of a hectoring schoolmarm …grating,” Will wrote in the Washington Post, relying lazily on this term and its hackneyed accompanying verb, “hectoring.”

But though I’d read the term hundreds of times in reference to Warren, one day I heard it in person and it felt different. At an elegant dinner party this past fall, I discussed the presidential race with senior university people from various places. “But she’s … I don’t know … so schoolmarmish,” said one of the most distinguished men of the company. Pow. A punch in the gut. Until that moment, I’d fancied myself part of that dinner group — I thought I was a scholar, a writer, a colleague, a peer. But if Warren, with her bulletproof arguments, lightning wit, Harvard and senatorial pedigree, seemed to this man like an off-putting scold, then what was I? Clearly, a far lesser schoolmarm. I might aspire to be like Susan Sontag, but I was at best Miss Beadle from Little House on the Prairie. I felt myself flying back in time to a one-room schoolhouse — far from the candlelit New York dining room we were in, far too from the university lecture hall or any other perch for “professing.” I was morphing, like Senator Warren, into a pathetic nag, a cliché.

To be clear: The schoolmarm never deserved her bad rap. Teaching is an honorable, even sacred profession, and for centuries, one of the very few that welcomed women. We need elementary-school teachers today every bit as much as we needed those schoolmarms of yore.

But special problems start when women step out of the still-feminized realm of teaching children and start sharing their expertise with adults — in universities or in the wider public. To call an educated woman with powerful opinions a “schoolmarm” implies that her remarks are suitable only for children, devoid of interest for grown-ups. To use the term is to say, “Since I am not a child, I need not grant you my attention.”

Warren is hardly the only woman professor to be diminished or overlooked on the political stage lately. Remember psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford? She of the impeccable, detailed testimony against Brett Kavanaugh? On the witness stand, Blasey Ford was learned — drawing from her professional understanding of the brain and memory to describe Kavanaugh’s alleged assault on her years ago. She spoke like the professor she was and in return she got … ridicule and death threats. Think of Trump impeachment witnesses Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill who, while not technically professors, evinced great scholarly expertise in their remarks before Congress, only to be mocked, their testimony largely ignored.

Or think of the many women professors who regularly appear on even liberal TV political stations, such as MSNBC, who are virtually always addressed casually by their first names — as Maya (Professor Wiley), Joyce (Professor Vance), or Mimi (Professor Rocah). Male on-camera professors, on the other hand, receive exaggerated deference. Who has ever dared call Professor Tribe “Laurence” or Professor Dershowitz “Alan?” It’s almost unthinkable. But why?

Because the archetype of the learned man looms large in our cultural imagination as an authority figure deserving of respect. But a learned woman remains an aberration, an unnatural creature to be diminished and implicitly sent back to the appropriate realm for women: the care and education of children. And with its connotation of prudish virginity, “schoolmarm” reminds us that women are still defined by their relationship to men. A schoolmarmish woman has no obvious sexual “owner,” no husband to confer the status of wife or mother. (By contrast, consider the wives and girlfriends of Trumpworld and their endless parade of mute, hypersexualized adornment. They are the anti-schoolmarms.) Unadorned and “unattractive,” the schoolmarm is deemed unworthy. This is the only archetype we seem to have for the woman intellectual.

It matters little that Warren happens to be a married mother and grandmother. Or that there’s nothing prudish, infantilizing, sexless, unattractive, or grating about her. What matters is how confident, highly educated, and eloquent she is. Those very same qualities in Barack Obama (also a former law professor) helped earned him the presidency. And when Pete Buttigieg — Rhodes scholar and child of two professors — unspooled his beautifully crafted spoken paragraphs, everyone swooned. No one called these men “schoolmasters.”

Since Senator Warren withdrew from the race, my female professor friends have been using words like “bereft,” “devastated,” and “heartbroken” to describe their mental states. More than Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar, Warren felt like one of us — a teacher, a woman who can explain things clearly, work out logical problems, and respond to questions. These skills are desperately missing not only from the current presidential administration, with its blatant misinformation, but from so many other Democratic candidates’ rhetoric (neither Joe Biden nor Bernie Sanders can lay out an argument like Warren).

Despite the “hectoring” accusation, Warren never yelled or scolded. She was a model of communication, an educator at heart: “After I became a senator,” she told Rachel Maddow Thursday night, “I still had teaching dreams.” (whereupon she offered a dazzling mini-seminar on how we should be handling the coronavirus, the economic crisis, the banks, tax law, and a few other critical topics).

It’s painful to watch Warren leave this race. Painful to see how her merits are underappreciated. Painful to recognize the role played here by “schoolmarming.” (Yes, I am making it a verb.) But maybe we can take this pain and turn it to good use. Instead of mourning the end of Senator Warren’s presidential campaign, I propose we declare an end to schoolmarming. For those of us who “profess” for a living, and the millions more who’ve benefited from women’s teaching — at all levels — let’s say good-bye to this antiquated form of sexual harassment. And to take it one step further: Let’s turn the pain we feel at the schoolmarming of Warren — and any other brainy women — into pride. From now on, I shall wear the label “schoolmarm” as a badge of honor.

The Battle Cry of the ‘Schoolmarm’